Giving a candid and deeply personal commencement speech at Tuskegee University on Saturday, the First Lady of the United States reflected on the emotional toll of being the country’s first black first lady.
As reported by The Hill, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to the students at the Historically Black Alabama college for about a half an hour on Saturday, running down the ways in which media especially held her to a different standard than other first ladies.
“…Over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me,” said Mrs. Obama. “One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism.’ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s Baby Mama.’ ”
“Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying what people thought of me,” she recalled. Obama added that she let the criticism get to the point where she would wonder if she was hurting her husband’s chances of becoming President, while also fearing what her daughters would think.
The first lady said eventually the only thing she could do to prevent others from defining her was to “ignore all of the noise.”
“I had to be true to myself and the rest would work itself out,” she recounted, to cheers from the audience.
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In addition to the usual questions on the campaign trail, Mrs. Obama said she also had another layer of questions thrown at her.
“But, as potentially the first African-American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
The first lady also mentioned that simple gestures between her and the president became something else: “You might remember the on-stage celebratory fist bump between me and my husband after a primary win that was referred to as a ‘terrorist fist jab,’ ” she reflected.
Mrs. Obama said that both she and her husband, President Barack Obama know the frustration of people who “will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world,” she said. “My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives. … And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry.”
Yet, this “black tax” is not an excuse to give up.
“They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.”